iFi Pro iCAN: Where Want and Need Meet
Today we’re checking out iFi’s top tier hybrid amp extraordinaire, the Pro iCAN.
Any time I’m in a thread or forum where someone is asking for a suggestion on which new amplifier to buy, inevitably someone will throw one of iFi’s many options into the mix. With such a vast selection of products to choose from, and with a positive reputation to back it all up, it’s not particularly surprising. Almost every review of a product of theirs is rife with praise and positivity, regardless of whether the review is coming from someone like myself who was loaned a unit to check out, or from a legitimate customer who simply wants to share their experiences with others who might be interested in buying the same thing.
I really don’t enjoy reviewing devices and prefer to stick to headphones and earphones, so when Lawrance at iFi reached out to see if I would be interested in reviewing a product of theirs, their reputation in the community was more-or-less the deciding factor. I wanted to see what makes the iFi brand so beloved in the audio community. The Pro iCAN was selected almost exclusively for the purposes of getting the most out of the HiFiMan Susvara.
Before we get started, I want you to know that my experience with other iFi products is nil and other amplifiers limited at best, boiling down to my current headphone amp, the TEAC HA-501, a few old Kenwood’s from the 90’s, a classic Marantz Model 3800, and an NAD C 356BEE owned by my cousin. I’ve also messed around with countless other stereos belonging to others but not enough to know them inside and out. If you’re expecting a technical, in-depth look at the Pro iCAN, you might want to check out some other reviews. Mine will be a subjective take on this compact powerhouse.
I also come from a psychology background and as a result my writing can be quite sterile. I can’t wax poetic like some other reviewers unless a product really grabs my attention in a particular way, something amps and players haven’t really done for me yet. In my world, they’re really just there to transmit music to the headphone with little need for in depth features or fancy gimmicks. All I want is for them to be intuitive to use and to stay out of the way of the music. The Pro iCAN does both of those things very well, while also containing a slew of features and things that could be considered gimmicks if they weren’t implemented so well.
The Pro iCAN was a loaner unit sent over by iFi for the purposes of review. Thanks to Lawrance for reaching out to see if I would be interested in checking out one of their products, and for suggesting the Pro iCAN. As this was a loaner, it was sent back to iFi.
At the time of this review the Pro iCan retailed for 1,600 USD; https://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/pro-ican/
- Gain: 0dB, 9dB and 18dB user-selectable
- Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500kHz(-3dB)
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD, Balanced/Single-Ended):
- Balanced SE Solid-State: ≤0.0015% ≤0.005%
- Tube: ≤0.002% ≤0.005%
- Tube+: ≤0.012% ≤0.2%
- Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR, Balanced/Single-Ended): >147dB(A) / > 137dB(A)
- Output Power (16Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >14,000mW / >4,800mW
- Output Voltage (600Ω, Balanced/Single-Ended): >23V / >11.5V
- Input Voltage (Pro iCAN): DC 9V/6.7A – 18V/3.35A
- Input Voltage (iPower Plus): AC 85 – 265V, 50/60Hz
- Power Consumption: ≤ 22W idle, 50W max.
- Dimensions: 213(l) x 192.5(w) x 63.3(h) mm
- Weight: 1.93kg （4.3lbs）
- Test conditions: Gain = 0dB, 0.775V(0dBu) with 300 Ohm load unless stated otherwise
- SNR Balanced re 23V, SNR SE re. 11.5V
Packaging, Build, Features, Sound, and Other Stuff:
I’m used to my stereo equipment arriving in a fairly basic cardboard box with some branding, model numbers, and some other random stuff plastered on the outside. Open it up and the device is usually wrapped in a sheet of plastic and tucked in some squeeky foam cutouts. There’s usually a manual that could have been crafted from any standard printer, then folded and stapled. To say the unboxing experiences are unremarkable and completely forgettable would be an understatement. iFi’s unboxing experience on the other hand is a little more modern and less sterile than that.
The Pro iCAN’s shock-white box and minimal branding, limited to iFi in silver letting on the top and two sides has an Apple-level of minimalism and style to it. The exterior sleeve, which shows images of the front, side, and rear of the iCAN along with a list of specs and features shakes things up a bit. Inside, you’re immediately greeted by the iCAN nestled in a soft foam ring shaped perfectly to fit around the plethora of knobs, inputs, outputs, and other protrusions present on the device. Below in a few segmented compartments are the remote, power brick and cable, along with a short audio cable.
The Pro iCAN itself is a solid and hefty device considering it’s compact size. The all-metal shell is nicely constructed with clean cutouts in the rough shape of a rippling wave emitting from the tube. The rest of the shell has a broad corrugation to it which is subtle but looks pleasant. Its too bad that effect doesn’t carry over to the faceplate which maintains a simple rectangular shape, breaking design cohesion. On the bottom isn’t the usual rubber pad per corner, but one large silicone pad with an indent for stacking the iCAN with their other flagship device, the iESL. As others have mentioned, this large silicone pad lets the iCAN pivot or slide around more than it should. A mild annoyance at worst for me. What annoyed me more was the labeling of the various dials and knobs. The matte silver writing on the silver faceplate meant they were washed out in certain lighting conditions or at specific angles. Not an issue after a couple days with the device as it is fairly intuitive to use. All the iCAN’s functions fell to hand without much thought after getting used to the layout.
When it comes it inputs, outputs, and options, the iCAN should have most users more than covered. This is a very flexible device, much more so than my equivalently priced TEAC HA-501 which is simple and barren in comparison. On the front of the iCAN, starting from the left, you find the power button and LED indicator, input knob, XBass selector, switch for moving between solid state/mixed/tube-only functions, left balanced input, standard 3.5mm input, 4-pin balanced XLR input, right balanced input which doubles as a 1/4” input, 3.5mm balanced input, 3D effect selector, gain selector, volume knob, and the IR receiver for the remote. And that’s just on the front. Flip to the back and you’ve got another set of balanced XLR inputs, three RCA inputs, balanced XLR outputs, an unbalanced RCA output, a DC loop-out, ESL-link, and the 15V/4A DC input for the power brick. That’s a lot of holes in a reasonably small device. The most amazing part is that it’s all laid out in a very neat and uniform manner where everything is easy to access, though the two toggle switches on the front for the state selection and gain are quite small.
While I appreciate the inclusion of the remote, it found little use while this unit was in my possession. One reason being the iCAN was almost always within reach, usually sitting a couple feet from me on my desk so there was zero need for the remote. The other being the remote adjusts volume only, and each adjustment required an individual press of the button. Maybe the battery was low, I didn’t have another to test it with, but you couldn’t simply hold the button down to adjust volume. Being the impatient person that I am, I’m much more likely to get up and walk across the room to adjust volume rather than chill in my chair and press a button countless times. Sure, I’d rather have the remote than not, but overall it wasn’t particularly useful.
What was useful was just how wonderful this unit sounded and paired with nearly everything I threw it’s way. One thing users won’t be wanting is extra power, that’s for sure. As mentioned earlier, the primary reason for selecting this amp was to get the most out of the Susvara from HiFiMan, a top of the line, full-sized planar magnetic headphone. It doesn’t take much to get it up to volume, but to get the most out of it’s dynamic performance it does take some proper driving power. My TEAC HA-501 just barely does the job. The iCAN did not disappoint.
With the Susvara plugged into the balanced 4-pin Neutrik XLR input, hybrid state selected for a touch of warmth, XBass off and 3D Enhancement off, gain set to +18, I sat down and leaned back in my leather Lazyboy recliner with the lights off and a HiFi E.T. MA8 sourcing Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century”. The next 44 minutes were utter bliss. Rick Davies’ harmonica solo leading off the album on the track “School” sounded beyond crisp. The following build up to the piano solo and eventual battle between Davies’ chunky guitar work and Hodgson’s unique vocals egging Davies on set the stage for the rest of the listening session. “Asylum” ended up the next highlight with the iCAN sketching out and defining the soft piano work, swells of emotion from the eventual strings and guitars filtering in as the track progressed. And of course, Hodgson’s wailing vocals begging not to be admitted, pleading his case for sanity. On my favorite track, “Rudy”, the iCAN’s outstanding separation paired with the Susvara’s technical excellence surrounded you in the mellow, weightless piano work dancing in the background. At around 1:20, the pulsing swells of strings were perfectly captured by the iCAN as it worked in conjunction with the Susvara. Around 4:00 things get 70’s with a wakka wakka guitar groove kicking in. Hodgson’s vocals shift stage from back and to the left with a subtle filter placed overtop, to dead centre and clear as day. The iCAN’s outstanding sound stage and layered presentation really aided in giving this track depth and urgency, especially in the closing moments where strings appear again, pulsing louder and louder only to fade into “If Everyone Was Listening”. Closing out the album is another excellent entry in the Supertramp portfolio, the title track “Crime of the Century”. Paired with the iCAN, the dark, heavy tones and pained guitar solo oozed emotion and feeling, even more so when swapping away from the iCAN’s hybrid setup to tube only where the presentation takes on a slightly softer, warmer tone. I’ve listened to this album countless times over the years, front to back. Never was I pulled in quite to the same extent as I was when experiencing it again through the Susvara and iCAN. It was something truly special.
That feeling carried over into every subsequent listening session as I experienced my favorite albums for the first time all over again. It wasn’t just good for music either. Wipeout 2048 on the PS Vita is one of my favorite games and can be an intense experience with headphones, even through that tiny screen. It’s fast paced with some pretty outstanding sound design. Filtering it through the iCAN and Susvara was such a hilariously overkill experience to have with a mobile video game, and I loved every second of it.
Since reviewing devices isn’t my forte, here are some additional observations about the device gathered through use during the couple months the Pro iCAN was in my possession. I was having trouble working it naturally into the review. Instead of forcing it, you can read these details in a more easily digested form.
Solid State (Blue light): In this state, I found the iCAN to present with a very precise, detailed sound with very little coloration. It was nearly analytic in it’s presentation giving the Susvara additional definition to it’s note presentation. I really enjoyed pairing the iCAN on this setting with warmer headphones like the thinksound On2, A-Audio Legacy, and Polk Audio Buckle.
Hybrid (Yellow): Here the iCAN sounded quite similar to running in solid state mode, but with some added warmth and a softer note presentation. I found running it in this mode extremely flexible, pairing well with everything. The Susvara especially sounded lovely during hybrid playback, maintaining it’s natural warmth but gaining a bit of additional precision.
Tube (Green): If set to tube more, turning on the iCAN cold would net a relaxed 25 second boot time as the tubes warmed up. Switching from other states after the device was already one was much quicker, as would be expected. Also expected was the iCAN to show off a warmer, softer tone than running in the other modes, though it still wasn’t quite a lush sounding in this setting as my solid state TEAC, something that took me by surprise. Vocals in this mode were smoother and slightly less detailed, but damn if you couldn’t listen for hours on end without experiencing fatigue. I really like pairing brighter headphones like the HiFiMan HE-350, Philips SHP-9500S, or AKG K553 Pro with the iCAN on this setting. The Susvara sounded best here with classic rock and metal.
Xbass: Unlike more traditional bass enhancement features, it doesn’t simply increase bass across the board but focuses on specific frequencies, namely 10Hz, 20Hz, and 40Hz. This will come in handy for addressing limitations in your headphones. It came into play for watching movies and with the K553 Pro which made use of the 10Hz boost, giving it some extra grunt in the lower bass where I find it lacking.
3D Sound Enhancement: Beyond the initial 30+ option, this feature didn’t do much to the Susvara. Maxed out it also took away from the impact of bass and deeper tones. It’s impact was much more noticeable with the ADVANCED Alpha, a more budget friendly planar, and didn’t act as a negative towards the low end. It was also very helpful with some of my closed back headphones. The A-Audio Legacy has a reasonably intimate and compact stage, opening up considerably with the setting maxed out at 90+. The thinksound On2 also benefited, but not to the same extent. It already has a pretty good sound stage for a closed back on-ear and lost some imaging precision as 3D Enhancement was added in. For some, the trade off for a more spacious sound would certainly be worth it.
Black Background: The iCAN was a very silent runner, showing off a colorless, black background with everything I tossed it’s way. That included sensitive BA-only iems like the B100 to power hungry products like the HiFiMan Susvara.
Toasty Taylor: The iCAN runs pretty warm, which is to be expected from a powerful, compact, Class A device with tube functions. It was never hot enough to cause worry, though I wouldn’t be particularly keen on stacking it with other units that generate a similar amount of heat unless in a space with ample ventilation. Experience with my own equipment of an older vintage, composed of gear from the 70s and early 80s, shows that devices that pump out heat to the extent of the Pro iCAN really need that airflow. If you’re coming from equipment that doesn’t run quite as warm, this might throw you off.
Stacking: Because of the tube poking up gingerly through the top of the unit, the iCAN will probably find itself at the top of your stack of devices. Stacking it with other products in iFi’s Pro series would be ideal since they are designed to be used in conjunction, or stacked, with each other. Scroll back up to the picture of the silicone pad on the bottom of the unit and you can see where there is a clear indent to accomm odate the tube. Handy little feature.
vs. TEAC HA-501: To my surprise, regardless of the setting, the HA-501 was the warmer of the two devices. The various settings on the iCAN gave it a lot more flexibility and pushing power. Whereas my TEAC pushes the Susvara adequately, on particularly bass heavy tracks like The Prodigy’s “Charly (Trip into Drum and Bass Version)” the TEAC will distort once the volume increases enough. The iCAN did not. Also, with the 3D Sound Enhancement featured dialed in, the iCAN was capable giving off a larger stage. The only area where I definitely preferred the TEAC was in the low end presentation. It seemed to have a little more depth and impact, though the advantage was whittled once you started taking advantage of the XBass enhancements of the iCAN.
I’m the type of audio enthusiast that finds a source and amp that I like, then builds the rest of my auditory experience around it, focusing on picking up a variety of headphones with various signatures. Others do the exact opposite by finding a single headphone that represents them and their preferences, then they hunt down the perfect amp and/or source so they can get the most out of it. The Pro iCAN is suited to both of these kinds of people. It can be that one reliable source for people like me to build their experience around, yet it has the flexibility and performance to be the one device thats let you get the most out of favorite set of headphones without the need to buy multiple amps for signature variety.
Being able to run your gear in a solid state, tube, or hybrid setting gives the iCAN impressive flexibility and suitability with a number of different signatures. Further enhancement via the XBass and 3D Sound Enhancement features just adds to it’s chameleon-like nature. It’s three gain settings let you power pretty much anything at whatever volume you want, free of distortion. It has enough inputs, outputs, and variety within each to let you attach nearly anything, and source sound from pretty much anywhere. It… kinda just does everything. When you take into account the plethora of things it can do, the cost of entry is actually pretty darn reasonable. Would I trade my beloved TEAC HA-501 up for it? Yup. My TEAC looks and sounds gorgeous, but the iCAN is so much more capable and flexible in the long run.
Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Lawrance and iFi for the opportunity to check out the iCAN.